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Issue 39 - A day in the life of a crofter

Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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A day in the life of a crofter

David Fleetwood examines one of Scotland's most traditional ocupations.

The sign by the track warns passers-by to beware of the animals, and, looking up towards the long low house set amidst a collection of machinery, goats, sheep and chickens, it is easy to see why.

What appears to be a chaotic smallholding is, in fact, a croft. This method of managing and using the land has been a way of life in Scotland for more than 200 years, and despite the well-documented decline in the population of the Highlands and Islands throughout the Clearances and the 20th and 21st centuries, crofting is still a way of life for many people.

There are some 17,778 crofts registered in Scotland today, many on marginal land in remote Highland glens and on Hebridean shores. Earning a living in such a way has always required the ability to innovate and hold down a number of jobs in addition to tending to crops and livestock.

Historically, land in Scotland was administered through the clan system with a central feudal overlord and various tiers of social hierarchy beneath. The decline of this pattern of land ownership was closely linked to the destruction of the traditional clan system after the defeat of the Jacobite rising.

Once the feudal system had been dismantled, it became clear that the land could not support the population it had previously, due mostly to the excessive subdivision of landholdings. The remaining landowners also began to change their attitude to the landscape; they wanted to extract maximum profit from their land and so implemented ideas for improving land management.

In the 18th century, landowners discovered that sheep were more profitable than tenants, and so began to clear people off their land leading to the notorious Highland Clearances. Many of those evicted emigrated, but others were pushed to marginal land in the form of small crofts near the shore or high in the hills. This resulted in the patchwork lifestyle of a crofter, part farmer, part labourer and part fisherman.

The removal of tenants to create sheep farming or sporting estates was not an easy process, and by the late 19th century there were a number of confrontations between crofters and landlords. One of the most notable was the uprising in Glendale on Skye, which became so serious that a British Army gunboat had to be brought in to pacify the crofters.

The result of a series of such battles was the establishment of the Napier Commission, which looked into all the issues surrounding crofting. The most important act of the Commission was to pass new legislation (in the form of the Crofting Act) to give crofters security of tenure. The first true crofts were created after this date, and there was pressure for more crofts until after the Second World War, when it was still not uncommon for the land to be acquired forcibly via raids.

Crofting is perhaps most widespread and visible in the Hebrides, where a patchwork quilt of fields and houses covers the landscape. Places like Ness on Lewis are dominated by peat bog and machair near the shore, with small fields for crops and vegetables squeezed into the gaps where the soil is good enough. The small-scale production of crops and livestock has always remained the backbone of a crofter’s life.

Barley and potatoes were the most common crops, providing food for the crofters and winter fodder for their livestock.

Crofters had to fertilise their land heavily to provide enough soil for crops to grow. In crofting areas near the sea, this was achieved by creating small ridges to make the soil deeper and then piling on seaweed as fertiliser. These so called ‘lazy beds’ can still be seen throughout the Hebrides, both on working crofts and also as the only remaining evidence of a long-gone crofting settlement.

The number of animals that a family was permitted to keep on their croft was dictated by the amount of rent that they paid. For every pound paid in rent, the crofter was allowed to keep a cow and ‘her followers,’ along with between five and seven sheep.

The cattle were sold each year in order to pay the rent.

Nineteenth century crofters had to complete most farming tasks manually before machinery became both affordable and available in the 1930s and 1940s when it was usually bought by the community.

Much of the harvest was cut by hand with heavy scythes and stacked into traditional stooks in the fields to dry. Later they would be moved into the storage sections of the croft house. Afterwards the harvest grain was winnowed and threshed by hand with flails.

Working the farm by hand was hard work, and, due to the harshness of the landscape, output from farming was often not sufficient to support a crofter and his family.

Crofters have always had to be prepared to work with the landscape. For crofters in the islands where few trees grow, timber was very hard to come by, with driftwood being one of the main sources, and thus any that was available was too valuable to burn.

Crofters turned to the landscape to solve this problem and cut peat from the boggy moorland. The peat was cut into small blocks (around the size of a house brick) and then stacked up to dry before it would burn.

Many island crofters also exploited their local marine environment in order to supplement their income; the Oxford English Dictionary still defines a crofter as someone who combines farming with fishing and another vocation. The herring fishing season began around the beginning of May and continued until mid July. It usually provided the crofters with enough money to supplement their farming for the rest of the year. In the late 1870s, poor land conditions combined with a decline in herring fishing and hit many crofters hard, leaving some destitute.

One of the main differences between the life of the modern day crofter and their predecessors is housing. Many 19th century crofters lived in a blackhouse. This was a long, relatively narrow, single storey building with walls made of rough boulders, and filled in with peat and earth for insulation. A large wooden frame of triangular trusses was placed across the top of the walls, and over the top of these was laid a combination of turf and heather, which was usually replaced annually.

Finally, the thatch was secured by a fishing net or some twine weighed down at the edges with large rocks. Further rocks were laid on top of the walls to give the roof extra security.

The blackhouse had a central hearth and no chimney, the smoke swirling around the roofspace before escaping out of a small hole in the roof. Because the smoke permeated the thatch over the course of a year, when it was stripped off it was used as fertiliser.

The blackhouse was unique in that it provided all round shelter for the crofter, his family, his crops and his livestock; the animals were housed in an earthen-floored byre at one end with drainage at the centre, whilst a flagged area at the other end of the house provided accommodation for the crofter and his family. Apart of the house (often tucked up into the eaves) was also used for the storage of grain and other food.

Blackhouses were replaced in the late 19th century, as crofters came under pressure to separate the accommodation for humans and animals. The new houses became known as white houses because of their white render and more modern accommodation. Although the blackhouse was considered by many to be unsanitary and unsuitable for occupation, there were still blackhouses in use as recently as the early 20th century.

The life of the crofter has always been a struggle. Apart from the introduction of some farm machinery, it has changed very little during the last 200 years. The controversial history of crofting and its links to a still painful class struggle make it a central theme of modern Scottish history.

Crofters have always worked with the landscape, developing innovations and turning difficulties to their advantage.

They knew they had to respect the land so that it would continue to provide for future generations.

Their ability to work alongside the landscape is an example that modern society could learn a lot from.